Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When the Party is Over: Athi-Patra Ruga

In the wake of Madiba’s passing it is probably a good time to meditate on that paranoid right-wing myth dubbed The Night of the Long Knives. The phrase is appropriated from the name given to a deadly (did any of their initiatives not involve death?) Nazi programme, which involved murdering over 80 political opponents. It was a bloody purge, and one that some right-wing whites have long believed would occur in this country after Mandela’s death. This fear is rooted in the idea that this magnanimous man’s reconciliatory stance towards whites would be eschewed and replaced by a violent programme to kill off all powerful whites. In this myth Mandela is positioned as the glue that held South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy together. In other words, the miracle, this supposed peaceful rainbow nation will die with him.

Athi-Patra Ruga’s rendition of the Night of the Long Knives doesn’t quite involve a bloody purge. There is lots of red about, but it’s the tone of all the faux flora that colonise the image. In fact this series presents photographs featuring quite an idyllic scenario. His infamous ballooned character titled the white woman of Azania rides sidesaddle on a zebra through a tropical idyll, flanked by two characters that have been informally nicknamed the Abu-Dhabis due to the gold speckled hijab-like costume that conceals their bodies. Is this the (idyllic) world after the whites have been purged? If so perhaps their annihilation has seen the white figure take on mythic proportions, or maybe in such a scenario whiteness fittingly becomes an abstract idea rather than referring to skin colour. The white woman of Azania propped up by a decorated zebra isn’t any specific colour; she is the metaphorical rainbow nation with her multicoloured balloon outfit. In these photographs and other images at Ruga’s new solo exhibition, the White Woman of Azania Saga, her existence and the dream of the nation she perhaps embodies remains quite intact.

In Ruga’s performances she doesn’t enjoy much of a lifespan; after parading along the streets in the manner of a cavalcade of sorts he violently annihilates the façade and the socio-political ideologies it communicates – Azania, the rainbow nation dream – by bursting the balloons and streaking the streets with the coloured paint inside them. It’s a violent purge for sure, but of a fantasy rather than of people opposing some kind of twisted one.

These performances leave spectators in a precarious place; desiring the fantasy, while taking pleasure in observing it being dismantled and discovering what lies beneath it – Ruga and other performers (usually men) parade as  women. Maintaining a fantasy is about sustaining a pretence. However, as with drag, the form of pretence that Ruga enacts is one that sets out embracing artificiality.

Precariousness has been a hallmark of Ruga’s performance art practice, so, it is interesting to observe how this state can manifest or be sustained in a gallery show, where the works are not only solid permanent objects, are rendered in mediums that further articulate a sense of longevity, such as tapestry and stained glass design, but also appear to sustain the euphoric fantasy of which the balloon outfit had became a signature motif.

An attempt to reconcile his performance art with his artworks at this show, isn’t unexpected; the title connects them and the vast array of artworks (the show occupies both floors of the Whatiftheworld gallery) that expand on his performance art while feeding off it. This level of integration in Ruga’s practice is a new and rich development; there was always a disconnect in terms of subject-matter between the tapestries and his performance art.

Importantly, this show recontextualises Ruga’s performance art; the tapestries and photographs make his take on Azania tangible. Like the balloon façade, Ruga’s Azania is an artificial hyper-fantasyland; populated by zebras – apparently the main form of transport – and defined by a lush tropical vegetation – Durban on steroids – acid bright flowers, and with beautiful women adorned in leopard print coats it is an overstated African dream (read stereotype).

Monday, December 16, 2013

'Madiba art' is unfashionable

Yuill Damaso's Night Watch
Predictably, when an image of Madiba’s corpse entered the public realm it wasn’t well received. Yuill Damaso’s contentious painting, Night Watch, which showed the late former president lying inert while political leaders performed an autopsy on him, caused a furore when it went on display at the Hyde Park shopping centre in 2010. The oil painting, rendered in a realistic manner echoing the artist’s source of inspiration – the Dutch master Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp – became headline news when it attracted a searing critique from the ANC.
“It is in bad taste, disrespectful and it is an insult and an affront to values of our society,” asserted senior party spokesman Jackson Mthembu.

Damaso had not intended to cause offence.
“I wanted to show that although Mandela was a hero, he was a mortal, a man nonetheless. I pictured him with his arm cut open to show that he was made of flesh and bones. We all have the potential to be like him, but we have to do something great (to achieve his status).”
Before the controversy had died down the artwork had a buyer: AngloGold Ashanti had put in a R400 000 bid, according to the artist. Damaso’s art appeared to be worth a lot more than the commercial galleries he had approached over the years had envisioned. He put their disinterest in his work to the fact that conceptual art is more highly prized. Undoubtedly, for as Mandela is highly regarded, the local gallery circuit haven't embraced art picturing the late leader. 'Madiba art', if you could call it that seems to cater for more populist tastes. It simply isn't fashionable in art circles, perhaps because it can't function as an elitist object and the 'sacredness' attached to it limits artists from dissecting it or challenging what it might represent. This may also account for gallerists desisting from 'profiting' from it - which is seen as almost vulgar and uncouth.
Steirn's photograph of Mandela

Night Watch was desirable for two reasons; its prominence in the media and the fact that it depicted a man who had become an iconic figure, representing and embodying the ethos of the South African miracle. Almost any works picturing this great leader tend to attract high prices; last week a photograph by the Australian photographer Adrian Steirn fetched a record R2 million from a New York dealer. The anonymous buyer stated that: “I am honoured to own what has already become an iconic image of one of the greatest statesmen the world has ever known. In a single frame the photographer has captured the essence of dignity, principle, conviction and courage in this great man from whose life’s work and dedication to a greater cause we all have much to learn, and by which I am inspired daily.”
As this statement suggests, people are willing to pay any price to possess objects that evoke the qualities attached to Madiba.

Perhaps in acquiring such works there is a sense that an individual or institution is able to affirm their support of the values he espouses and represents, as well as those that they wish to attain in their own existence.
In feeding a market for Madiba products, do those who purchase objects parading his likeness perpetuate the commercialisation and exploitation of his image and perhaps, by doing so, erode the values he stands for?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

When 'the (art) thing' is no longer the 'thing': Art Week Cape Town

Modern Painting by Zander Blom

I can hear Willem Boshoff aka The Big Druid snoring before I see him. He’s lying on a thin mattress on the floor of the Smac Gallery, where his installation Big Druid in his Cubicle has been installed. Consisting of vintage objects in neat compositions, the installation appears like an orderly antique shop or interior of a home, belonging to a fastidious or assiduous collector. A collection of ornate wooden walking sticks are arranged in a line, as are a group of rusted sickles, there is a pair of old scissors, and lids of cardboard boxes are filled with the disassembled parts of dolls bodies. On a shelf is a skull among toys and a vintage radio. I discover on my way out of the gallery that each composition, or objects within each arrangement, if you could call it that, boasts a title, implying they are forms of expression. A list of artworks reveals that dental mouth casts on paper are dubbed “Speechless” and a battered bag, stones and a dice are titled “School”. I return to the displays to identify the objects that are assigned meaning but give up quickly; it’s too difficult, the spaces are so cluttered with things that I am easily distracted and find the quest futile; assigning or searching for meaning in retrospect seems like such a false response.

These antique compositions are only one aspect of his work; the Big Druid also goes on walks, where he “strives to look, see and discover that which others miss or avoid”. Unfortunately, my timing is bad so I miss joining him on one of these strolls – though through the (over) abundance of urban walks in Joburg this pastime has grown cold on me. Some artists are even positioning urban strolls as art. Have I missed Boshoff’s work? Is his sleeping body, the work – I quite like the idea that the only time a gallery has no hold on an artist is when he/she is asleep? The artful composition of knick-knacks could be the art that is also not art, or the large words like “Prick” and “Fat”, spelt out with small letters or beads that look like bona fide art products – they are framed and covered in glass that are displayed in an adjoining room at Smac.

It’s disconcerting, but I’m not really interested in discovering what Boshoff is saying – ironically, these blown up words, direct attention beyond words – but rather how he is saying it; where his expression is located. Is everything an accessory to his performance as a Druid or artist (for him these two personas are connected)?
My interest, or perhaps lack thereof, is a consequence of the emphasis on materials and mediums being advanced by a few galleries participating in the second Art Week Cape Town. A week of art openings could dull the senses of the most sensitive viewer but it’s the art, or the way it has been packaged, that has delivered me at this shallow place, though I’m not convinced interest in materials/the medium is superficial.
It is probably the Stevenson Gallery that has taken the lead in this trend, if you could call it that, with an exhibition dedicated to sculpture, which automatically directs your attention to the mediums the artists have chosen and how they do or do not conform with the idea of sculpture. There are a few traditional sculptural works by Conrad Botes and Claudette Schreuders, however, the rest of the works ‘challenge’ conceptions about what sculpture is, through the artists’ chosen mediums or materials. Video works, for example, would not be deemed sculpture – sculptures have a physical presence and are generally static – yet it is the medium preferred by a group of performance artists who would ordinarily be excluded from a sculpture show. It is the process of making and unmaking sculptures that define Lerato Shadi and Kemang Wa Lehulere’s works. In Matsogo (2013), Shadi crumbles a chocolate cake in her hands, moulding it into a variety of shapes before it returns to its original state. It goes from being a desirable object to something inedible: a brown mould that looks like a ball of earth. Wa Lehulere’s A Homeless Song (Sleep is for the Gifted) features two sets of performers moving a mass of bones from one place to another. One of the performers in each duo is white and another black; lending a racial undertone to the work and it is implied they depend on each other as they uncover and pull apart and reassemble the past. A sense of futility pervades; wherever the bones (ancestors, history) are located they still exist.

Covered in body paint and make-up, a naked Steven Cohen is positioned as a “living sculpture” in the contentious work Cock/Coq, which may see him frozen to a spot in a French jail if he is found guilty of sexual indecency by authorities in that country – nudity is a given in classical sculptures but in a live body it is deemed indecent. His work relies on it being offensive; otherwise it would have had no impact and would not have been registered by the South African or French public – it was performed in front of the Eiffel Tower. Cohen might use his body (and that of others) to make statements but, in fact, notions of what are indecent are his core tools, that is the material he works with; it’s invisible, though he makes it visible through the absence of dress. The ornate, pretty, make-up – long batting lashes and butterfly like motifs –on his face, presents a delicate, feminised individual, an innocent and unthreatening being, which makes whatever aggressive responses to him seem so misplaced, though he invites this. This visage underpins the martyr-like position he embraces; he must sacrifice his dignity and safety to make the world understand its ugly contradictions. In this way, he perhaps suits the “living sculpture” phrase linked to him in the handout, though he could not be more unsuitable as a permanent public feature. If he was, his appearance would be acceptable and his work would lose its power. He can never be (fully) public or permanent.
Dineo Bopape's Same Angle, Same Lighting

Quickly, I’m drawn to the works where the sculptural element is a supporting feature to the end-product, accidental and functional sculptural objects. Such as the crude makeshift contraption that acts like a projector in Dineo Bopape’s Same Angle, Same Lighting. Amazingly, this low-tech rickety device is capable of translating an image (of flowers) onto a screen in front of it. It’s the sort of thing hipsters would covet; it looks like an outmoded pre-prototype artifact. It’s alive too; it moves back and forth, tightly holding onto the original image. In this way this device is “the material”, the thing, the location of the work and not the jumpy image on the screen. It’s a bit like becoming preoccupied with the technology inside a TV set instead of the content on it.

Zander Blom’s Modern Painting articulates the same point; instead of presenting his paintings as|sculptures, which is easy, specially those latest paintings with viscous 3D blobs, Blom presents the by-products of his painting; the soiled shoes, paint brushes and other paraphernalia in his studio that gets covered in paint. This isn’t a surprise, as anyone who has visited his studio can attest; in some ways his paint splattered interior is more interesting than what gets done in it. This is partly because Blom doesn’t clean up; so items are caked with paint and he preserves each empty tube which sits in a perfectly formed pile. Blom has a slightly pathological fetish for painting – the act of doing it and the mess it creates around him is as pleasing as the work. This is the ultimate submersion in a medium. There is something vacuous about this, but the level of immersion it demands implies anything but a superficial engagement.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Surviving Performa 13

Maria Hassabi's Premiere pic by Paula Court

The East Village isn’t a bad place to kill time. This Manhattan suburb isn’t very stimulating during the day, but at night the restaurants that line the streets are buzzing with patrons. We’re sitting in an establishment that specialises in vegan raw food, not because it’s our cuisine of choice but because of its location – across the road from the Russian and Turkish Bath House, where Rashid Johnson’s Dutchman will be performed that evening.  Johnson may well be a star of the art world but we would rather not attend his performance. We are busy talking ourselves out of doing so.
“It’s too cold and I’m not willing to get wet,” I argue. These are valid points; it is around 4ºC outside and I don’t have the prerequisite swimming costume and flip-flops outlined as the dress code for this performance in the press invitation. Why do we need a swimming cossie? Will we be swimming? The idea of appearing in a costume at a performance is making me feel like running a mile. But I don’t. I’m too curious and tend to suffer from an acute form of fomo (fear of missing out).

It’s some comfort that the handful of journalists outside the bathhouse look as apprehensive as we are. It’s a strange reversal; being an audience member is supposed to be a carefree experience – even for critics, who get to observe from a detached position. Yet this reversal shouldn’t come as a surprise; most of the performances at Performa 13, a New York-based performance art biennial, have left us feeling that performance art demands a lot from its audience – and is in fact all about reversing performance conventions. Conclusions are beginnings. Beginnings endings. The notion that a performance should or can be entertaining is annihilated too. And in most cases the “performance artist” isn’t present. In one case, Ryan McNamara’s Meme: A story ballet about the internet, he is hiding under the stage. Vishal Judgeo and his partner/co-performer spend their entire performance concealed behind a screen on the stage. It’s as if no one wants to perform.

In Premiere by Maria Hassabi there seems an obvious reluctance: the performers have their backs to us for most of the performance. Our entry into the theatre at The Kitchen in Chelsea is unconventional, too; we arrive at our seats after crossing the stage, where Hassabi and a group of performers are positioned.
Most audience members rush across this space; it’s brightly lit by stage lights attached to rigs on either side of the “stage” – a place where we don’t belong and tread gently. When the excitement of this unusual start has worn off, it becomes clear that the performers, who have their backs to us, are slowly moving to face us. This is all they will do.

Premiere is centred on prolonging what is usually a split second action when the performers confront their audience. Once you realise this is the motivation for the “action”, if you could call it that (it is defined by painfully slow gestures), you start to wish the whole thing would end.
This impatience is tied to our demand as an audience to be entertained and stimulated, rather than being trapped viewing an action you take for granted and which carries little weight – performers are usually burdened with negotiating the significance of “facing” an audience, not us. It’s an interesting reversal, which builds tension between us and them, but it can’t be sustained because it quickly becomes banal. Or, dare I say, boring? In an era of overstimulation via different online media, perhaps being boring has become provocative.

Hassabi, a New York choreographer and performer, seems intent on deconstructing and isolating each aspect of performance – at Performa 11, she presented Show, a work in which she analysed and organically established a “stage”. In this way her work could be described as metaperformance – performance art about the mechanics of performance. But then, perhaps all performance art is concerned with performance, from the theatrical to the everyday, commenting, analysing and distorting it.

Sweating it out during Rashid Johnson's Dutchman
pic by Paula Court
Performance art is parasitic in this way and perhaps is a form that can’t claim its own vocabulary – everything is derived from something else. In this context, performance art could be a field that doesn’t exist, which is what makes it so intriguing and enigmatic – but also so marginalised within the broader visual arts.
Hassabi’s work sounds better on paper. The idea driving it is more interesting than enacting it, though of course, it has no value or meaning unless it is performed because you can’t know what it might be like to prolong the action of facing an audience without doing it. But it is so tedious to sit through that by the time the performers face us, we have lost interest in this moment, which is positioned not as the beginning of a performance but the end, the grand finale.